Posted by Nat Bernstein
2015 was a rich year for Jewish literature of all genres, and its contemporary authors had plenty to share with readers beyond their books through Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe and interview series. With so much incredible content to explore in review of the past year, we’ll start you off with fifteen highlight interviews, reading recommendations, and literary and personal essays on reading, writing, and Jewish identity from some of the leading writers of 2015!
1. Soon, I’ll Know All the Words They Know
It was uncanny, her portrait in black and white on the cover of the book and my own school picture. The same smile, the same cheekbones, the same nose. The same black, thick hair, cut just above the shoulders and held back by a barrette. And dark eyes, like mine. The book had small black words crowded together, page after page, bleeding through the pages, endless. I whispered the words of the title, tested their weight in my mouth, “Anne… Frank… Diary…” Continue reading »
2. The Doomed Generation
by Joshua Cohen
After Numbers, nothing’s left. Deuteronomy isn’t a book, but what happens after books: just recaps (in case you missed the action since Sinai), summaries (in case you missed the action at Sinai), instructions (What Thou Shalt Do, and What Thou Shalt Not Do, Beyond Moab), and lists (The Top Ten Commandments)…
To read about Numbers’ doomed generation was to read about my own — a generation born in the 1980s enslaved to the page, but by the millennium freed by the screens, to search — or, in alternate terms, to wander. The Cloud now guides us by day and guards us by night, securing while surveilling — our manna is data, information, the content that never quite contents us. Because for all the sites of our sojourning, we keep moving on: nothing can hold us, nothing sustains. It’s as if we’re always seeking a site just beyond — a text that stills us, but that can still be passed on. Continue reading »
3. May As Well Be Called Jesus
As an unofficial, unaffiliated friend of the Tribe, I found a certain freedom. I couldn’t don the prayer shawl or offer an aliyah at my kids’ bar and bat mitzvah, but with a few exceptions I was welcomed to participate. It was kind of great, actually. Friends born into it dealt with complicated familial associations or pangs of guilt or embarrassment as they made peace with their Judaism. Every prayer offered or dreidel spun conjured complicated memories of overbearing mothers, horrible Hebrew schools, and anguish over Israel. Their practice of Judaism was wrapped up in thorny questions of identity and heritage.
I had none of that. I could approach Judaism unburdened by questions of whether doing this practice or not made me a “good” or “bad” Jew. I could “do” Judaism, enacting the spirit of the practice without worrying about the labels associated with it. Continue reading »
4. Interview: Barbara Klein Moss
with Nat Bernstein
Intrigued by a nefarious Jewish character in Barbara Klein Moss’s debut novel, Jewish Book Council sought to learn more about the sympathetic serpent in The Language of Paradise. Between comparing outrageous exegeses on the story of Eden and swapping slip-ups in transitioning between writing in arcane language and living in the modern world, the author offered insight into the Jewish experience of nineteenth-century New England and the complexities of casting a Jewish villain. Contine reading »
5. My Top 5 (Recent) Historical Novels
Looking over my list, I notice that three of my recommendations are set — or partially set — during World War II, the time period of my own novel. When I started A Master Plan for Rescue, I had trouble finding anything new that was set during World War II — and I do remember searching. But lately, there’s been a bumper crop of wonderful novels set in that era. Which kind of makes you wonder what was in the cultural ether seven or eight years ago that prompted so many of us to write about the time period. Continue reading »
6. We’re Living in a Golden Age of Jewish American Art and We Don’t Really Know It
These are great times for those of us who support, encourage, and enjoy looking at art with Jewish themes. Perhaps never before are so many artists all over America finding inspiration in the basic texts of the religion — the Torah, the Talmud, kabbalah, and the daily and high holiday prayer books. The artists do not just illustrate these texts in traditional ways but challenge them, especially feminist artists opposed to male patriarchy, and find personal themes and subject matter that allow for personal flights of fancy.
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7. “An Age of Creative Readers Makes for Literature Which Is Immortal”
Jewish Book Council is proud to announce the realization of its project to create a digitized archive of Jewish Book Annual in partnership with the Center for Jewish History, presenting over half a century of national discourse on Jewish literature in an interactive, searchable format to honor the 90th anniversary of the first Jewish Book Week.
Jewish Book Annual came into being in the midst of World War II, and the world’s events were very much present in the minds of the journal’s first contributors. From the perspective of the twenty-first-century reader, Volume I’s critiques and essays are almost overshadowed by the introductory notes from members of the National Committee for Jewish Book Week, stating the importance of ongoing Jewish literature and community engagement in the face of the Nazi eugenic terrorization of Europe. Continue reading »
8. Alluding to the Torah
My years as an undergraduate were neatly bookended by reading the two most highly allusive books of modernism. When the time came to write my own first two books, though, I found my system of allusion was nowhere near so broad. I have not tried my hand at getting down just a bit of Sanskrit, as Joyce did in Finnegan’s Wake (I’ve heard that there are as many as 60 languages used to some degree of competence in that novel, though I’ll never try to find out myself — not smart enough). I don’t have a strong sense of the Greeks, as Eliot did. What I had was the Torah. Continue reading »
9. Five Simple Ways to Be Good to a New Mom
by Elisa Albert
Judaism has very clear, widely practiced proscriptions for how to support the bereaved, but strangely we don’t talk much about how we support women who are about to or have recently given birth. Which seems remiss, given that birth and death are so clearly on the same continuum, sacred portals at opposite ends of life. If how we process and honor death matters, then how we deal with birth must matter in direct proportion. Probably the Rabbis weren’t so concerned with how women get through the childbearing year because hey, the women had it under control. But given the dire state of childbirth and early motherhood in the here and now, perhaps it’s time we brought these issues into the light, so as to better address them. Here are a few simple ways to be decent to people who are working very hard to bring forth and nurture new life.
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10. Interview: Etgar Keret
with Becca Kantor
“I don’t experience my fiction and nonfiction as short, but as concise. There is something very intensive and full of energy in my writing experience. I once said that, for me, writing feels very much like an explosion — and I haven’t yet learned how to explode slowly.” Continue reading »
11. A Sacred Space
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, from the age of eight until the age of thirteen, I was fetched after school and driven to “KI” — Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Northeast Philadelphia — to attend Hebrew school. Despite my efforts, the language never took. The primer was dull, and the strange hieroglyphics on the page failed to resolve themselves into meaning. When class let out early, however, I would slip into the dark, empty sanctuary and wait there until my mother arrived to take me home. I liked KI. The Bible stories we were told on Sunday mornings were stirring. The sermons of Rabbi Korn had the power to inspire. But the moments I liked best were the ones I spent alone — in the shadows — in silence — with God.
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12. I’m Telling Everyone
I suppose if it were a matter of life or death I’d lie about my background, but even then I know I’d have a hard time. Being Jewish is such an intrinsic part of who I am that sooner or later I always find myself waving my flag. It’s sort of like the old joke about the elderly Jewish man who enters a confessional and tells the priest he’s just had sex with a young and beautiful woman. “But you’re Jewish,” the priest says. “Why tell me?” “Are you kidding?” the old man exults. “I’m telling everyone.” Continue reading »
13. The Land of Aardvark
Has anyone ever really dealt with the Jewish underclass of the Bronx, where I grew up, next to the trolley tracks of Southern Boulevard and Boston Road? Some of us might look back with a kind of nostalgia, talk of a golden period, when families rambled around Indian Lake in Crotona Park, before Robert Moses ruined the borough with his super expressway. People ask me if the Bronx had ever been my playground. It was a little paradise of empty spaces, a garden where nothing would grow, except bitterness and regret.
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14. Memory Games
I have been a journalist for nearly a quarter of a century, and have, over the years, interviewed thousands of people. Yet my most recent book, The House of Twenty Thousand Books—a book that is, on one level, simply about the lives lived by my father’s parents; on another level a journey through the modern Jewish experience; and, on yet another level again, a portrait of obsessions — took me on an intellectual odyssey the likes of which I doubt I’ll ever again experience.
Writing The House of Twenty Thousand Books, for several years I immersed myself in the worlds, the dreams, the hopes and the fears lived by others. It’s a strange sensation. In some ways, the realities of those others became more real than were my own. The political passions, the bibliographic obsessions, the conversations of my grandparents and their friends and comrades, became the fabric of my daily life. I trained my mind to effortlessly wander bookshelves, containing thousands of books on both socialist history and on Jewish history, that had been emptied several years earlier, following my grandfather’s death; and I asked my palette to virtually re-taste culinary marvels conjured up by my grandmother Mimi in her kitchen a generation ago, to feed the many, many people who would descend on the House at 5 Hillway in north London for meals and conversation each and every evening for roughly half a century. Continue reading »
15. My Very Unorthodox Kabbalist
by Sigal Samuel
Image from An Illumination of Blessings by Ilene Winn Lederer
To study Kabbalah, you’re supposed to be (a) forty years old, (b) married, and © a man. I am none of these things. Luckily, I grew up with a dad who was a professor of Jewish mysticism and was willing to share its secrets with me.
Raised in Montreal’s Orthodox community, I attended a school with strict gender norms. I was expected to obey all of Judaism’s 613 commandments. But, as a girl, I wasn’t allowed to take an interest in the religion’s more esoteric branches. That didn’t stop my dad from giving me lessons in mysticism. Continue reading »
Think another post should have made it onto this list? Let us know in the comments section below!
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.